LAS VEGAS (CelebrityAccess) — Jerry Lewis, the comedian and filmmaker who became a defining and divisive figure in the American comedy scene, has died. He was 91.
Born Joseph or Jerome Levitch (depending on the source) to a Vaudeville family in Newark in 1926, Lewis was exposed to the entertainment world at an early age, often performing alongside of his family in the Catskills. By the age of 15, he had developed his own act — a high energy performance where he exaggeratedly mimed record lyrics on stage for laughs.
Lewis was propelled to success after World War II when he partnered with singer Dean Martin, who became a straight man for Lewis's on stage antics. The two performers parlayed their lounge act into a successful radio show and became regulars on early television and eventually feature films.
The partnership petered out by 1954 and Lewis launched a solo career, venturing into music after successfully filling in for Judy Garland when she couldn't perform at a Las Vegas show due to strep throat.
The ad hoc performance led to a single, followed by a full album "Jerry Lewis Sings" on Capitol Records that sold more than 500,000 copies, peaking at #3 on the Billboard chart and outstripping anything he had done with Martin.
The album heralded a period of success for Lewis, with multiple film and television appearances, bolstered by regular live performances. Films Lewis wrote, directed or appeared in from the period include: The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), Don't Give Up The Ship (1959), The Bellboy (1960), and The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lewis also hosted two different versions of The Jerry Lewis Show, the first, a lavish 13-week show for ABC and the second a one-hour variety show for NBC.
However, by the 1970s, Lewis's box office cachet had waned and he did not return to the big screen until Hardly Working in 1981. While the film was panned, it was popular with audiences and went on to generate more than 50 million at the box office.
Lewis continued to make films and television appearances up until his death, finding particular popularity in France, where his absurdist take on cinema gained him a Gallic reputation as a filmmaker akin to Alfred Hitchcock's stature in the U.S.
Lewis is perhaps best known for his long tenure as a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis raised vast sums for the charity, staging long-running series of telethons, which ran for 21 hours on Labor Day weekend from 1966 inception until 2010 when Lewis was ousted from his role as chairman.
While Lewis never won an Academy Award, he was recognized with numerous other accolades, including a Prime Time Emmy for Best Comedian in 1952; British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The King of Comedy in 1983 and a Chevalier, Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur, France in 1984.